The SportsTech Ten: No. 3 - The Nordic SportsTech Pioneer

The SportsTech 10 is Mills & Reeve’s series of ten question interviews with some of the most important stakeholders and disruptors in the SportsTech ecosystem. This will include investors, start-ups and purchasers of cutting-edge technology utilised in the sports industry, all of whom are clients or good friends of the firm.

For our third interview in the series, we focus on the fast-emerging Nordic SportsTech scene, and in particular the various and impressive initiatives led by Carsten Couchouron, who is based in Copenhagen.

Carsten has had a long and distinguished career in sports to date, which has included senior executive roles at the likes of the Federation Equestre Internationale, European Professional Club Rugby, FIFA and the international sports marketing agency, Infront Sports & Media (where he and our Julian Moore were colleagues).

As we find out, he has recently launched Sports Lab Copenhagen, which will be working with a wide range of exciting SportsTech and sports innovation start-ups and SMEs, both locally and across the region.

“Although the Danish ecosystem is in its relative infancy, it has grown quickly in a short space of time and, in my view, the country is poised to be a major global player in the space.

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1. What is your background in the sports industry?

Before recently moving to Copenhagen, I worked in the sports industry in Switzerland for over 18 years. I held senior commercial roles and worked with rights holders (including FIFA, FEI and EPCR), brands (such as Swatch) and agencies (including at Infront Sports & Media). This has given me a 360 degree view of the industry from the perspective of all major stakeholders, including in the key fields of sponsorship, media and technology.

That experience demonstrated to me that, particularly as a sports right holder, it can be difficult to identify and understand the various different types of new sports technology that are on the market and that can truly benefit your organisation. That’s understandable: you’re normally focused on delivering an event and there is a lot of sales clutter and jargon to cut through to find the best technologies and platforms.

Also, historically, many established sports organisations have tended to be conservative and reluctant to embrace change, whether in terms of the formats of their events or the technology they utilise. While that culture is changing rapidly, it remains the case that most innovation has been acquired or driven from outside of the sports rights federations.

“As a sports right holder, it can be difficult to identify and understand the various different types of new sports technology that are on the market and that can truly benefit your organisation.”

At the same time, it can also be difficult for technology providers to connect to the right people at sports rights holders. This is especially true for start-ups, many of whom are young and very tech-focused and who, therefore, do not have the opportunity to build a network of contacts within the industry.

Since moving to Denmark with my family, I have been creating and working on a number of initiatives to build a bridge between some of the fantastic young technology companies based here (and elsewhere in the Nordic region) and the more traditional and established sports industry world of rights holders and agencies. There are currently over 100 SportsTech start-ups operating in Denmark, but in my view the local ecosystem lacks structure and organisation. This is also something I want to change.

2. On what project(s) / for whom are you currently working?

My main project is called Sports Lab Copenhagen, which will be focused on a wide range of innovation in sport and so not just on pure technology providers. It could, for example, include innovative work in sports volunteering, training and urban sports facilities. The idea is to create a centre of gravity in Copenhagen for companies from the whole Nordic region who are driving innovation in sport.

This will include the use of a physical co-working space based here in Copenhagen (which we moved into last about a week ago), the creation of a network of innovative start-ups and other organisations and the collaborative sharing of knowledge, experience and ideas amongst those in the network.

“The idea is to create a centre of gravity in Copenhagen for companies from the whole Nordic region who are driving innovation in sport.”

There are also plans to create a wider nationwide network of bodies and initiatives working in or with sports who do not fall within the traditional national sports governing bodies and are therefore not recipients of central lottery and Government sports funding, and we want to ensure that innovation and our start-up network will be part of that.

I’m also part of a new initiative called Sports Tech Campus, which was launched by the Netherlands-based organisation, ‘Sport Experience’. The aim of the Campus is to create a pan-European network of sports tech startups and eco-systems. I’m their representative in Copenhagen. Last week, we entertained a delegation from Holland and Belgium who came here to learn more about the local ecosystem, how Denmark is leading innovation in sports urban planning, and we introduced them to some of our local companies. While the delegation was here, we also hosted a dinner for the Danish SportsTech community which was attended by 80 SportsTech enthusiasts, a first here in Denmark!

On a related note, together with our neighboring Nordic countries, we are discussing various initiatives to support cooperation between Nordic sports start-ups and give them more visibility internationally.

Finally, I am consulting for a number of start-ups, which includes connecting them with traditional sports bodies and shaping their strategic approach to sports.

In summary, there is a lot going on!

3. For start-ups/SMEs, describe the current state of the Danish SportsTech ecosystem.

Although the Danish ecosystem is in its relative infancy, it has grown quickly in a short space of time and in my view the country is poised to be a major global player in the space. The UK/London is, in terms of investment activity, clearly the largest European SportsTech market. However, the Nordic region is second largest, and Copenhagen is the second largest city in the Nordic region.

There are a number of reasons for that. As a city, it is a global leader in ensuring its population is physically active, which includes the creation of a city-wide cycling infrastructure that’s used by most locals for daily commuting. As a percentage of the population, we have the highest numbers of sports participants in Europe and have the benefit of a well-funded sports community, including grassroots clubs and associations. We also punch above our weight in terms of the large international sports events we host.

“In Denmark alone, there are 180 FinTech start-ups, and in recent years investment levels have risen by 400% and the number of employees in the sector has grown by 100%.”

The ecosystem also benefits from a strong and well-established local tech sector, well-organised Government administration and a highly digitized economy. There is also strong collaboration between local academia and private commerce.

The growth of other local tech verticals has been impressive. In Fintech, we have seen considerable growth. In Denmark alone, there are 180 FinTech start-ups, and in recent years investment levels have risen by 400% and the number of employees in the sector has grown by 100%.

Similarly, MedTech and HealthTech are witnessing tremendous growth and are structuring themselves.

For SportsTech, the building blocks are in place. We have over 100 SportsTech start-ups in Denmark, 75% of which are based in Copenhagen. We have also seen some big success stories from companies such as Endomondo (a GPS-based social fitness platform similar to Strava), which recently became part of the Under Armour group, Trackman (a sports performance analysis product which is particularly popular in golf and baseball) and Tonsser (which is Europe’s most popular football performance app).

“For SportsTech, the building blocks are in place. We have over 100 SportsTech start-ups in Denmark, 75% of which are based in Copenhagen.”

4. In general terms, how will Sports Lab Copenhagen aim to improve the eco-system?

As I mentioned before, we want to create a centre of gravity for innovative and technology companies that focus on sport. That means providing the use of a physical co-working space and creating a network of companies and individuals who are all part of the same eco-system and that will become a focal point for all stakeholders that have an interest in sports innovation.

We will hold workshops and other sessions with relevant sports and industry organisations, cooperate and partner with other sports bodies, facilities, academic and research organisations and create a team of mentors and advisers.

Our aim is that this will attract investor and media attention. It will also inspire technology students to the industry and create a bridge to traditional sports rights holders.

5. Will you be focused entirely on the Danish market and companies based out of Copenhagen, or is the plan to partner/collaborate with similar organisations overseas, or to develop overseas opportunities for your member companies?

Sports Lab Copenhagen will be part of, and will collaborate with, a wider Nordic and international SportsTech network. We want Sports Lab Copenhagen to be the international launch and landing pad for SportsTech activity in and out of the Nordic region. With that in mind, we are creating partnerships with similar European and non-European initiatives.

6. What key challenges will you have to overcome – and how will you overcome them?

It is really important for us to create a culture of knowledge and experience sharing. Sharing knowledge and networking is culturally not as common in Denmark as it is in other parts of Europe, like in the UK. As the project will involve a considerable amount of networking and matchmaking, this might involve us having to persuade certain people that there is more benefits in sharing and being part of a community.

Probably our biggest immediate challenge is to secure some funding so we can carry out our mission and the activities we’ve planned. In Denmark, a considerable amount of corporate money sits in local ‘foundations’, which have been set-up for tax reasons and the proceeds of which are being redistributed to support projects that have specific social benefits and we need to tap into this source of funding, as well as into other public and private funds.

“It is really important for us to create a culture of knowledge and experience sharing.”

While some specific tech funds have been created for other verticals, at the current time, there are no private investment funds that focus specifically on SportsTech in Denmark. I think that will change, however, and over time, we’re confident more investment will be attracted into the sector and we’d like possibly even to manage – or help to manage – a local SportsTech fund. For the time being, I am in discussions with certain groups of international investors to scout for investment opportunities in the Nordic region.

7. Is there any particular area of SportsTech in which you’re interested personally (e.g. health/fitness, performance, stadia-tech, media etc.)?

I’m personally interested in all SportsTech, but more particularly in technology and innovation that helps people to become more active and also technology that creates a bridge between gaming and actual sports participation and activity. At the moment, I’m really interested in a start-up in Copenhagen called Hubbster that has been integrating sports into the urban environment and bringing sports facilities and equipment into the city.

8. In your view, what/who is the ideal SportsTech investor?

It depends at what stage of development and funding a company is. But in the early rounds, someone who can not only provide finance, but also provide valuable experience and share expertise that compliments that of the other investors.

Also someone who can open networks and introduce their connections to the business, and who, preferably, is prepared to act as a mentor and actively advise the company, and has experience of the types of challenges and issues with which a start-up has to deal.

9. Assuming unlimited access to funds, in which 3 SportsTech companies (Danish or otherwise) would you personally invest?

Well, I’d actually like to invest in all the start-ups that I’m working with at Sports Lab Copenhagen! They’re all really exciting businesses. However, if I had to choose 3 from Denmark, I’d go for:

(i) Hubbster. This company was launched in Denmark recently and designs and builds outdoor urban public sports facilities. It’s generated good traction in the USA and other countries where sports and participation has become a priority.

(ii) Tonsser. I mentioned them previously as they’re a big success story for the Danish SportsTech sector.

(iii) Veo. Their AI camera technology means that football matches can be recorded without the need for a cameraman and with relatively inexpensive equipment. Again, it’s another young successful company based in Copenhagen.

10. Your advice to aspiring tech entrepreneurs…

(i) Define the market need before you create the technology. Some young organisations who come from a pure tech background will understandably tend to focus on the technology first and then struggle to find a market for it.

(ii) Don’t isolate yourself and don’t be afraid to share knowledge and resource. That might mean becoming part of a hub where, by sharing knowledge, contacts and learnings, you should be able to grow faster and create connections. Since starting Sports Lab Copenhagen, we’ve had some fantastic day to day conversations between companies which have created opportunities, and that can only be a good and valuable experience.

(iii) Test your market as soon as possible, which means avoiding the temptation to over-develop or fine-tune your product only then to find out there is no market for it.

(iv) I also advise start-ups against having a sole founder. You should bring in a co-founder as soon as you can. For many investors, it’s a big warning sign if there’s only one founder as the company potentially will be over-dependent on the skills and decisions of one person, and he/she may lack in some of the many different types of skills needed to create, run and scale a business successfully. On a related note, it also quite often makes sense for technology business to hire in non-tech/business staff at an early stage, particularly to help with business development.

(v) Don’t overdo the accelerators! They obviously can be of great benefit, but it is better to choose one or two good accelerators and to develop your product, rather than spending too long involved in them repeatedly.

Get in touch

Please do make contact if you would like to meet or speak with any of the Mills & Reeve specialist SportsTech team. We work with a wide range of stakeholders in the sector, including funds and other investors, start-ups and established technology providers and purchasers. We would be delighted to hear from you.

 

Authors:
Julian Moore
Zickie Lim

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